or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Equal Access

   February 1st, 2007

Comic StripA friend of mine sent me this comic strip - it's nice when people outside of libraries notice library-related things.

Anyway, this comic also struck me as funny, due to the double-standards inherent in libraries. We pride ourselves on promoting and providing equal access to all information and resources, and yet there are certain topics that could make any librarian think twice. Should the Quran be one of these topics? No more than the Bible.

But I've also noticed this double-standard when it comes to internet use. We defend peoples' rights to look at white supremacist or political websites, which could easily make someone else in the library uncomfortable. But when it comes to people looking at porn in the library, librarians often actively try to curtail it. Why? Because it makes some people uncomfortable.

I know that in public libraries, kids are always a concern, and do need to be protected to some degree. But why would accidentally seeing porn on someone else's computer screen be any more harmful than a flag-waving racist?

Not that I have a solution, of course - I just dislike inconsistency.

comic, comic strip, equal access, libraries, library, public libraries, public library

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3 Responses to “Equal Access”

  1. Emma Says:

    This has always bothered me too. Moreover, our library has basically no policy on when to intervene if someone is looking at potentially objectionable content. It seems odd not to have a written policy about something so significant, and not having something explicit seems to contribute to the inconsistency because we never had to sit down and have a conversation about what that policy would say if it existed. At that point someone could have said something like your point about political and racist sites.

    Does anyone else’s library have a formal policy, and if so, what does it say?

  2. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Emma: good question. Since the topic is so broad, you almost have to have an equally-broad policy, and then apply it accordingly (and perhaps differently) to each individual situation. My library’s policies are online, if that helps.

    Our procedure, though (I think), is the important thing. We always immediately respond to complaints – I go over to the “offender” and never accuse them of anything or ask to see their screen or anything like that. I just tell them that someone complained about something they saw on their screen, that this is a public building, and so anything on computer screens must be appropriate for all ages. Sometimes the person was watching YouTube music videos, or shopping for underwear or something online, but often the person apologizes and then leaves shortly thereafter. Not ideal, but it seems to work.

  3. Emma Says:

    That’s helpful, thanks!